Italy expelled two Russian diplomats after police said they caught an Italian navy captain passing secret documents in return for money.
The Italian, a captain of a frigate, and the Russian, who was accredited at the embassy, were accused of “serious crimes tied to spying and state security” after their meeting on Tuesday night, Italian Carabinieri police said.
The suspects were not officially identified. A police source said the captain was called Walter Biot, adding that he added accepted 5,000 euros ($5,865) in return for the information.
It was not immediately possible to contact Biot, who is under arrest, and the name of his lawyer has not been given.
Ansa news agency said NATO documents were among the files that the Italian had handed over, raising potential security worries for other members of the Western military alliance.
Italy immediately summoned the Russian ambassador Sergey Razov and expelled two Russian officials believed to be involved in what Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called an “extremely grave matter”.
“The accusation of espionage against Italian and Russian officers shows that we must continue to work closely with Europe and our allies to constantly improve our means of protecting the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Di Maio said.
Russian news agencies, citing the Russian embassy in Italy, said the pair who were expelled worked in the military attaché’s office. It was not clear if the Russian army official who met the captain was one of those ordered to leave the country.
Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying Moscow would reciprocate for the expulsions, standard practice in such cases.
However, statements from Moscow suggested Russia was keen to play down the incident. The Russian Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying that it regretted the expulsions, but that they did not threaten bilateral relations.
Earlier, the Kremlin said it did not have information about the circumstances of the case but hoped the two countries would maintain positive and constructive ties.
The incident was the latest in a series of spying accusations in recent months against Russians in European countries. Bulgaria expelled Russian officials on suspicion of spying in March, and the Netherlands did so in December.
Tuesday’s arrests in a Rome carpark were ordered by prosecutors following a long investigation carried out by the Italian intelligence with the support of the military, the police said.